A Lesson from Anderson Cooper – Your Eyes CAN Get Sunburned!

As 60 Minutes Correspondent and CNN Anchor Anderson Cooper recently discovered, a person’s eyes really can get sunburned. Cooper suffered blindness in late November 2012 resulting from exposing his eyes to the sun’s harmful UV rays without wearing proper UV protection.

Cooper told CBS This Morning that he experienced 36 hours of blindness after a day of filming in Portugal for a piece for 60-Minutes. Because Cooper was filming on water, the sun reflecting off the water “burned” his eyes, which resulted in his temporary blindness.

On his show Anderson Live, Cooper described the ordeal this way: “I wake up in the middle of the night and it feels like my eyes are on fire, my eyeballs and I think, oh maybe I have sand in my eyes or something. I douse my eyes with water. Anyway, it turns out I have sunburned my eyeballs and I go blind. I went blind for 36 hours.”

Ophthalmologists have stated that Cooper likely suffered from a retinal burn or solar keratitis, which is a burn to the surface of the eye. While solar keratitis usually heals within a few days, a retinal burn usually takes 3-6 months to heal.

Interestingly, Cooper also said the day was overcast and he was only exposed for two hours.

Solar Keratitis and retinal burn can also be caused by staring straight into the sun or looking at a solar eclipse. Surfers and skiers, really anyone spending extended periods of time on water or snow, are especially susceptible to solar karatitis.

How do you know if your eyes are sunburned?

The symptoms of eye sunburn may not show up right away, as was Cooper’s case, and can include blurred vision, pain, redness, tearing, and vision loss. Sunburned eyes also will likely feel gritty or sandy. Should you have any of these symptoms, see your eye doctor right away. Your ophthalmologist will likely treat sunburn of the eye with lubrication and an eye patch. And, as already noted, your eyes will simply need time to heal.

What can we learn from Anderson Cooper’s blindness?

  1. Wear sunglasses whenever you are exposed to UV rays. Experts, such as those at the University of Houston, stress the importance of wearing protective eyewear even on cloudy days. Cooper’s experience clearly shows that eyes can be damaged even when the sun is hiding behind the clouds.
  2. Wear quality sunglasses. And, just as important, be sure to wear the right kind of sunglasses. Dr. Natasha Hertz, ophthalmologist at Washington Advent Hospital, recommends sunglasses with UVA and UVB protection with UVB protection being the key. Not sure where to buy sunglasses that you know will protect your eyes? Check out these sunglasses and safety sunglasses from your favorite name brands.
  3. Regular exposure of the eyes to the sun can have long-term effects. Those affects include cataracts, macular degeneration, benign eye growths, and skin cancer around the eyes. While Cooper has completely recovered from the sunburn of his eyes, only time will tell if he will suffer any long-term effects.

A Vision Counsel survey discovered that 73% of adults wear sunglasses at least some of the time, but only 58% make their kids wear them too. The counsel said that the reasons people do not wear sunglasses whenever they are exposed to UV rays is that, mostly, they forget. About 14% of people said they don’t wear them because they lose or break their sunglasses often.

The Vision Counsel’s report also said that about 20% of people surveyed said they don’t believe their eyes are at risk from sun exposure. And even if people do believe the sun can damage their eyes, many fail to realize the cumulative effects the sun can have on eyes over a person’s lifetime.

Hopefully, Cooper’s experience can help people see that exposing eyes to UV rays, even on cloudy days, not only damages eyes cumulatively over a person’s lifetimebut can seriously impact a person’s ability to see anything at all.

Related Reading:

Yes, Your Eyes Can Get Sunburned: The Dangers of Photokeratitis

How to Remember to Wear Sunglasses

About Michael Eldridge

Michael Eldridge is the President and Founder of Safety Glasses USA, one of the web's largest providers of safety glasses and goggles. He's a US Marine Veteran who's particularly passionate about protective eyewear and helping people learn about vision safety. In his spare time he enjoys target shooting, fishing, camping with his family and watching Detroit Tigers baseball. You can follow Michael on Twitter @MikeEldridge73, Google or via the Safety Glasses USA Facebook Page.